SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Mark Memmott, NPR's head of standards and practices, recently ask a pointed question in all-staff memo. It went - can we call a word that would have to be bleeped a word that would have to be bleeped? Now, we'll clear that up. Why does NPR not use everyday obscenities that have become common in colorful expressions all over the airwaves? And do NPR's rules change for podcasts, which don't have to abide by FCC regulations? Mark Memmott joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being back with us, Mark.
MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: Glad to be here.
SIMON: First case specific - what happened?
MEMMOTT: The question in the newsroom was can we say someone's an [expletive] even if it's true? The specific issue was whether a correspondent could say in a podcast that someone who would bet against his favorite team or bet that his lover won't say yes to a marriage proposal is, well, let's say, an A-word. We decided not to use the word in that podcast. In general, we think NPR journalists shouldn't use vulgar, profane or obscene language on any platform.
SIMON: Your memo sparked an awful lot of conversation, and we want to bring in one of NPR's most distinguished voices, NPR's Nina Totenberg, Nina, thank you for joining us.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: My pleasure.
SIMON: You wrote one of the great all-staff memos (laughter) of all time about this. Let me get you to - can I get you to capture the essence of it?
TOTENBERG: Well, I said that I didn't think that NPR journalists should use bad words or profanity. But we do - it seems to me - bend over backwards to do something we shouldn't, which is to cleanse the news. So famously there was a piece that Eric Westervelt did that did not cleanse the news where he was in a firefight in Iraq with a squad and there were a number of profanities. And it was completely right that they should be in there. It gave you the sense of immediacy and urgency.
MEMMOTT: I'm nodding in agreement, and we did air those.
TOTENBERG: And it seemed to me that if you tried to bleep them it would've just distracted. But when we had, for example, the fraternity in Oklahoma, we bleeped them so much nobody knew what they said. And what if the example I said - what if a politician lost his temper at a woman reporter and called her particularly ugly name that begins with C and ends with T and we bleeped it but didn't put the consonants at the end? Nobody would know what we were talking about, and we do that all the time.
MEMMOTT: Well, we can be accused of being fussy, I suppose. I would say we care a lot about the words we use and think a lot about them. Are we launderers? Maybe, but there's an important point here. We are communicators and we do need to make clear what that word was and we can telegraph it in some ways. But if the stories we're telling are ruined for some listeners because our grammar is wrong or because we've slipped in a naughty word or two or that's the only thing they hear, then we're probably not communicating as effectively as we could. But like Nina says, when there are times we think it's editorially important that those words be aired, we've done it. We'll do it again, and it's a case-by-case basis.
SIMON: I can remember when words used to be bleeped and you could have the first letter and the last letter. That's no longer the case, right?
MEMMOTT: That's no longer the case. This is where Nina and I may disagree or she may have other evidence, but our guidance now from our attorneys is that if you're going to bleep something, bleep the whole word.
TOTENBERG: They're wrong. They're dead, absolutely, 100 percent wrong. I know of no significant case involving a news broadcast - as opposed to the Oscar awards or something like that - in which any broadcast organization was fined because they did that. I just think this is dead wrong, and I would - Mark, with all deference, I would fight it. I would not accept it as is.
MEMMOTT: And we do push back and the attorneys are basically coming back and saying they can cite cases where fines have been levied and have been paid. And they're worried about the stations - member stations - incurring significant costs.
SIMON: These words - as I don't have to tell you, Mark - are all over the airwaves. Does NPR risk seeming to be out of touch with the very people we're supposed to communicate with?
MEMMOTT: Risk that, yes, but we also feel as if we do want to set ourselves apart, and we don't necessarily need to get down in the muck with everybody else. I think like Nina says, you have to weigh it and if it's important, if it's key to the story, if it's news to our audience, we should debate putting those words on the air.
SIMON: NPR's Mark Memmott, who's head of standards and practices, thanks so much for being with us.
MEMMOTT: You're welcome.
SIMON: And Nina Totenberg, who needs no introduction, thank you.
TOTENBERG: Thank you.
SIMON: And you can write to Mark Memmott directly at word matters - that's all one word - at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.